At first glance, Buck Mason might seem like yet another carbon copy “Heritage” brand. They’ve got the old-timey sounding name. They talk a lot about the importance of domestic manufacturing. Their collection is comprised of selvedge denim jeans, oxford cloth buttondowns, and chambray work shirts. They even employ the consumer-direct business model that so many of the other new American(a) start-ups do. However, to write Buck Mason off as more of the same, is to miss out on some seriously great clothing. While the types of garments they make may (now) seem commonplace, Buck Mason’s design, fit and construction elevate their pieces well above similar offerings from other labels. They’re the kind of clothes that become favorites – wardrobe fixtures to be; uniforms in waiting. So as familiar as Buck Mason might seem, don’t let that keep you from getting familiar with them.
Buck Mason co-founders Sasha Koehn and Erik Schnakenberg recently took some time out to answer a few questions through email. Here’s what they had to say.
Give us the Buck Mason origin story.
Sasha Koehn: I had just finished creating an interactive content series called This Built America that sold to Ford and was distributed by AOL. It featured 50 episodes of companies re-imagining American manufacturing and highlighted the importance of what that means to the future of our country. That project and my involvement with Buck Mason all started when I’d taken this trip home to Cleveland and ended up walking through a bunch of old abandoned factories – it dawned on me that very few American companies actually make stuff.
Around that time I met up for coffee with Erik, who has always been in the apparel business, most recently as the Director of Sales and Operations for a Japanese denim brand. Erik knew nothing about This Built America – we had been out of touch for almost a year. He literally sat down and immediately started telling me about this new company he wanted to create. He was ranting about how terrible men dressed, talking about how this new generation of male fashion designers were leading men down a path of femininity. He wanted to give men a way to simplify their wardrobe and he was thinking about the every day guy, not some blogger in New York City geeking out on fashion week.
He wanted to curate “starter kits” that guys could just buy and throw on without having to think about it. His idea was that men actually needed less options, giving them too many choices is actually a bad thing. He sounded a lot more like a grumpy old man than he did a clothing designer, but I agreed. I’d always rejected the idea of trends, instead wearing timeless, quality basics for years until they finally fall apart. Then buying the same pieces again. I let Erik finish and then I said something like, “I love it man, but we have to make it in America. Every single item. We have to make it here and I know we can.” Erik said, “What do you mean, “we?” And I said, “We’re doing this together.” That was the beginning.
Though Buck Mason began by selling clothing from other brands, it’s now a full-fledged label. What led to this shift?
Erik Schnakenberg: We always knew we’d have our own collection but we started the company with $8000 in savings. We couldn’t afford to develop our own brand to start. Launching with other brands allowed us to test the concept of timeless essentials. We loved the brands we carried at the start but we planned to combine third party labels with our eventual proprietary designs.
We began concepting and designing our knit collection before we even launched the site but sales were virtually nonexistent for the first eight months so we didn’t build up enough revenue to fund our own brand until last November. A few months after we launched our first three Buck Mason products, the Wall Street Journal did a piece on the crew neck t-shirt and called it one of the best men’s tees in America. We did more volume in 24 hours than we’d done in the past 8 months combined. So that sales growth allowed us the financial capability to make the products we really wanted to.
Your Slim Jeans are some of the best fitting I’ve ever worn. Tell us about your design process: do you typically rework existing items, or design pieces from scratch? How many iterations do you go through before releasing to the public?
ES: Wow, thank you. Our Slim Jean is my favorite item in the collection. Our Standard Jean is the better seller as it fits more body types. Selfishly, I wanted the Slim Jean to fit me perfectly because I’ve always had difficulty finding a jean that is slim enough for my diminutive frame, but that isn’t a skinny jean made with spandex. We probably went through a dozen samples before we perfected it. We went back and forth on the bottom opening circumference serveral times. It’s 14 inches, which is small but I think it’s perfect for the fit. We designed The Slim from scratch – it really doesn’t fit like any other jean I’ve ever seen.
Buck Mason is one of a number of American-made, consumer-direct menswear labels that have popped up in the last few years. What do you think separates BM from the rest?
ES: First off, I applaud anyone who’s making clothing in America because it’s not easy. Our goal has never been to be different, rather, to be great at only a few things. Instead of chasing trends we want to make a few garments that can compete qualitatively with brands who are two or three times our price. We are not margin driven or sales driven, we’re passionate about timeless design and lasting quality. When we get those two things right sales increase.
With that being said, the most obvious points of differentiation would probably be value and discipline. We only make white, black, grey and blue shirts. What sets us apart might be more about what’s left off of our garments rather than what’s put on them. The silence between the chords so to speak, and that all ties back to having the discipline to ignore what everyone else is doing and stay focused on the task at had.
Does maintaining your affordable, consumer-direct price-point ever put any limitations on the types of products you can make or the materials you can use?
SK: Categories like outerwear and footwear are difficult but almost everything else is doable. Manufacturing woven shirts is an expensive process too, but being able to manage quality right here in L.A. is priceless. It costs us $40 to cut and sew our oxford shirts, which we retail for $88. That same shirt would be sold in a department store for $200 if we followed the traditional wholesale model. But advances in technology are making other categories easier, like knitwear.
ES: Most clothing Americans purchase is marked up 800% by the time the consumer buys it. Where is all of that margin going? It’s going to marketing and expensive brick and mortar operations. We can still make some money and offer exceptional quality at a fair price, but we have to be creative about how we find our customers. When people buy something that is marked up 800% they’re not buying into quality, rather they are funding that brand’s ugly Billboard in Time Square. They are funding that brand’s $50 Million marketing budget that is spent keeping folks believing that their brand is “cool”. I don’t think that’s our customer anyway. I think the American consumer is getting smarter, they can sense when something is inauthentic.
Are there any new products coming out this fall / winter that you’re particularly excited about?
ES: We’ve been working on a pearl snap western shirt for 4 months and it’s bad ass. We’re also introducing a more traditional denim fit that I think is going to be killer for big guys. We’re working on some super subtle denim washes in existing fits and expanding the knit collection with new styles and a lot of long sleeve stuff.
What would you say to someone that’s still on the fence about buying from Buck Mason?
ES: First, go buy the new Sturgill Simpson record Metamodern Sounds of Country Music. It’ll blow your fucking mind. Then, if you have $24 left over, buy a t-shirt from us. We’ll even handwrite a thank you note.
For price and purchase info, visit Buck Mason.